As some of you know, I serve as the webmaster for one of our local Sister Cities Programs. Some time ago, when I was building the web page for our sister city, Chester, England, I described Chester as a popular tourist destination for almost 2000 years.
Some members objected. “Surely,” they insisted, “there were no tourists 2,000 years ago!”
Now, when someone questions me on a point of history, I take that as an opportunity to have some fun. And one of the more fun-filled sources I used to correct their misapprehensions was Tony Perottet’s marvelous book, Route 66 A.D.
(Perottet has since changed the title to Pagan Holiday – evidently too many people thought it was about the historic U.S. highway, despite the statue of Julius Caesar on the cover!)
The more I learn about the ancient world, the more I realize that many of the ideas and concepts that we think are thoroughly modern, were actually around thousands of years ago. Tourism is an excellent example of this. Thousands of years ago, there was a flourishing tourist industry around the Roman Empire. Plenty of Romans had the itch to travel, and, as citizens of the richest, most powerful nation in the world, quite a few of them were wealthy enough to scratch it.
Perotett’s book is sort of a parallel tourist guide, telling modern travelers what to expect in various famous places around the Mediterranean, and what tourists could expect in the same places about 2000 years ago.
Today, when we begin planning our vacations, we often get out our Lonely Planet Guides and our AAA Tour Guides to determine what sights to see, and find what hotels are recommended. Hotels are rated by AAA, for instance, at 1 to 4 diamonds, depending on their quality.
Ancient Romans had their choice of several guides, written by scholars instead of travel writers, and exhaustively detailed. One fellow, Pausanius, devoted almost thirty years to his guidebook of Greece, and it’s so detailed that archeologists still consult it today. Pausanius may be the most widely-read travel guide in human history.
The Peutinger Map, named after antiquarian Konrad Peutinger, is a travelers’ map of the entire Roman empire. It shows the location of all inns and hostelries, and, like AAA, rates them for quality – a little picture of one tower means acceptable lodging, two towers is middle of the road, and a four-sided building is a first-rate inn. This is the only surviving travel map- there were probably many competitors a couple of millennia ago.
Today, when we arrive at our destination, we often rent a car to travel around in, to see the local sights. The Romans had similar options. And just like today, you could rent an economy car- a 2-wheeled buggy, or the Lincoln Town Car of its day- a cozy covered wagon pulled by a team of mules.
Roman tourists tended to pick the high-end option, because they carried a lot of luggage. They also had a couple of slaves, and 2 or 3 bodyguards to guard all the cash they had to carry around. Roman Bankers hadn’t invented a “Roman Express Card” – but you can be they had already thought of it. It’s just that plastic hadn’t been invented yet.
One reason we Americans like to travel today is to trace our roots – to visit the old country, whichever country it may be.
It was only slightly different with the Romans- Rome was not a land of immigrants – at least not at first – but they inherited much of their culture and traditions from the Greeks, and so liked to see for themselves the faded glories of Greece, “where it all began.”
The Greeks had much the same opinion of Roman tourists as many modern Europeans have about American tourists- “too rich and too loud.” And, like modern Europeans, the Greeks never let this slow them down one bit when accepting good Roman coin.
Another reason we travel today is to visit ancient historical sites. With the Romans it was no different. Now, you might be thinking “But the Romans are PART of the ancient world- what would they visit?
Well, consider this little factoid: When Julius Caesar sailed to Egypt in 47 BC, the Pyramids were more ancient to him than he is to us! And the Egyptian tourism industry was ready and waiting for Julius and his cronies when they landed.
It seems to me that wherever I go, from Las Vegas to London, there’s always some photographer ready to snap my picture. Just this summer, we had a family reunion in the Black Hills, and had a group photo taken in front of Mount Rushmore.
The Egyptians may have been the first to come up with this idea. They had no cameras, of course, but they did have Speed Painters. These guys hung around the Pyramids with several already-finished paintings of the monuments. For a few drachma, they would paint your smiling face in the foreground, and you would have a personalized souvenir to take home and hang on the wall of your villa.
When people came to visit, they would say “Oh, I see you’ve been to Egypt. My wife and I are thinking of going next year. How did you like it?” And thus might begin a conversation that has been repeated countless times over the millennia.
This book is chock full of remarkable parallels between modern and ancient tourism! I recommend it to anyone who, like me, likes to learn new things about old things.